ABILITYs Editor-in-Chief Chet Cooper and Senior Health
Editor Dr. Larry Goldstein spoke with the inventor when he was in San
Francisco accepting the Lemelson-MIT prize. Kamen was recognized for his
tireless efforts both practicing and promoting inventiveness
Dean Kamen is an inventor, an entrepreneur and a tireless
advocate for science and technology. His roles as inventor and advocate
are intertwinedhis own passion for technology and its practical
uses has driven his personal determination to spread the word about technologys
virtues and by so doing to change the American culture.
As an inventor, Dean holds more than 150 U.S. and foreign
patents, many of them for innovative medical devices that have expanded
the frontiers of health care worldwide. His latest invention, the Independence
3000 iBOT Transporter, or simply iBOT, is a personal transporter that
was developed for the disability community. It can climb stairs, traverse
sandy and rocky terrain and raise its user to eye-level with a standing
Another Kamen invention, the Segway Human Transporter
(a self-balancing, electric-powered transportation machine), came about
during the development of the iBOT. The Segway will allow people to go
farther, move more quickly, and increase the amount they can carry anywhere
they currently walk.
Chet Cooper: Lets talk about the iBOT. Was it your
Dean Kamen: Yes. Most of the projects Ive worked on
in my life are medical products. Sometimes, a client will ask if we can
work on a product for a particular need
and we do. If we are lucky
and it works, we get royalties from those projects. We always take some
of that money in-house to work on our own projects. If we work on a new
idea and it looks like its promising, we then go out to our client
base and say, Well, heres one that might be something youve
never thought about. It might have seemed too risky, but weve done
some preliminary work and we think we can do this. Would you put your
marketing resources behind this now that we have proven it technically
feasible? Sometimes we convince clients to do that. Well, we didnt
have any clients that were involved in mobility or any kind of disability
issues. But, I really believed that a wheelchair was an inadequate solution
to mobility problems. When you get to know a few people that use wheelchairs,
you notice how uncomfortable you become when you get to a curb and they
cant go where they want to go. When you have to look down at a person...I
mean, were sitting here talking, but if one of us were standing,
the other one would stand because you dont want to feel that way.
But, someone in a wheelchair cant stand. So, I said, What
if we could make a product that would eliminate a lot of the obstacles
and frustrations that people who use wheelchairs are always running into?
What ifin the processwe could also let people be at eye level
with their colleagues?
We wanted to make a product that provides some of those
uniquely human characteristics that many used to have if they are in a
wheelchair as a result of a disease or accident. They can be light on
their feet. They can be balanced. They can be at eye level. If you start
thinking about how to do that, you quickly recognize that the only way
to do it is with a machine, a balancing machine. People have a very small
footprint. They dont have a great big base like a typical machine
does or a wheelchair does. The reason that you have to be lower in a wheelchair
is your stabilitya function of the ratio of how high your center
of mass is and how big your wheel-base is. If you are depending on a static
or stable machine, every time you raise the center a little bit, you have
to make the base really big. Then, it becomes clumsy to get around and
you certainly cant deal with stairs because a stair is only eleven
inches long and you are on a machine with a 4 wheel-base. So, after
thinking about it we said, Alright, lets go build a device
that balances like a human. Well give people back all of the mobility
and capability and dignity associated with being up in the air, with having
a small footprint, and with being able to go everywhere when you want
to go there. We decided that wed do it. We started out and
spent a couple of years working on it. It was one of those projects that
more than once I almost said, You know, theres just not enough
technology out there to really safely and reliably do this. But,
we couldnt give up. Then, we got to where we had some insights like
putting the cluster on it, so we could deal with stairs the way people
dojust literally stepping up stairs. We realized that once we had
the clusters, we could put them down and give people this enhanced mode
to go on the beach and to go through the woods.
Although it was taking us longer than we had planned, we
realized that we had more exciting capabilities than we originally even
hoped for. So, we just kept plugging away and once we knew it could do
all those things, we called Johnson & Johnson. They are the largest
medical products company in the world. I called them and said, I
know you are not in the mobility business, but I cant find any really
big company in this business. The companies that are in the business
(like wheelchair companies) dont have the resources to do this kind
of thing. If I invented the first computer, I wouldnt go to an adding
machine company to make it because they only know about springs and wheels
and levers to make adding machines. Which is why when the computer industry
took over the world of computing and electronic text and all that, it
wasnt the Underwoods and the adding machine companies that did it.
It was Texas Instruments and the Intels. So, I went to Johnson & Johnson
and told them that this is probably going to be the worlds most
sophisticated high production robot. Its full of sensors, gyroscopes,
computers, and redundant systems. I probably should take it to a company
that is a cross between NASA and Boeingcompanies that make high
reliability auto-pilots. But, those people dont know how to get
to people with disabilities and give them the service they need. And I
cant take it to a wheelchair company where they dont have
the resources or technology to do this. So, I told Johnson & Johnson
that they need to help me and they sent some senior people to visit. They
looked at this thing and said, Youre right, this is not a
wheelchair, but theres a lot of issues. We have to get this out
to a population which is hard to get to and there will be a lot of skeptics.
And frankly, if we cant convince the food and drug administration
and the federal government that this is not a wheelchair its going
to be something that people wont be able to afford. And I
said, You know, why dont we work at it? Why dont we
demonstrate that the capability it will give people adds so much value?
They said, Okay. Lets try.
We all thought it would be three or four years, but it has
been the most difficult and sometimes frustrating project Ive ever
done. It wasnt from lack of effort and it wasnt from lack
of support. Johnson & Johnson has been just golden. You cant
ask a big company to be more a patient or pour more money into a project.
Its because they believe in it and they believe that people need
it. You cant blame the delays on the FDA or the Feds because we
havent even been able to submit it to them yet. Theyve always
said to us that they would give it an expedited review because it is important.
The delays are because this is a phenomenally difficult project and we
have to make sure we get it right the first time. If you put a person
with a disability in a machine like this, it better never do anything
surprising. When your grandmother is on a flight of stairs, it is not
a good time to reboot. So, we went through the most grueling, brutal set
of system tests you could imagine; destructive testing of components,
beating the hell out of the parts and systems. Every time we found something
that could conceivably go wrong we went back a re-designed it. So, weve
been at it and at it and at itbut what keeps us going is watching
a person with a disability try it out. They get up and they smile and
there they are standing 6 high going up a flight of stairs or going
through the woods or going out on the beachits unbelievable,
so we just keep going.
CC: Any thoughts on how long it will be?
DK: We are now, finally, almost done with the clinical trials.
We have a few left. Everybody thats been on the test loves it. If
things go well, we really believe thatespecially if the FDA is as
enthusiastic as they have beenby the end of this year the product
will be available. Certainly, within a year from now.
CC: I talked to some people at Johnson & Johnson and
they are really excited. They said that they are anxious to get it to
DK: I know. It is the good and the bad. They are so big
and they are so responsive. This is Johnson & Johnson. Some little
company would say, Hey, what they heck? We just gotta sell this
thing! Johnson & Johnson will never do that. So, the good news
is they have the resources to do it right. The bad news is they have the
resources to do it right. (laughs) Nothing is going to push them. I like
that. But, while I like it, it is frustrating.
CC: Do you still have ownership of the iBOT? How does that
DK: We designed the technology and then we went to Johnson
& Johnson and said, We dont have the resources to develop
it and put it in production, to do sales, to do service, to do whatever
it takes for a huge population that is spread all over the world. Can
you help us? They said that they wanted to do the project and the
deal was very simple. We would be responsible for the design and development,
but they have the worldwide exclusive right to this product for the medical
field. Its a Johnson & Johnson product. They have the license.
It has always been our responsibility to do the design and development.
It has always been their responsibility to take care of everything related
to getting it into the hands of people. It was never different than that.
Dr. Larry Goldstein: Is there any fear that Johnson &
Johnson could take the idea and use it for other products?
DK: No. For one thing, they are one of the most respected
companies in the world. They are a medical products company. What are
they going to do? Anything else they would want to do with it, any other
medical application, we would be thrilled to help them. I hope they want
to do that. So, there is no issue there.
CC: Have you had anybody that is blind try it?
DK: No. But we have had a number of people ask us and it
has started me thinking, God could we do some neat things.
Maybe we could put sensors on it. It would be awesome to do that. We havent
done it yet, but we really need to think about it.
CC: How about a guide dog? During the demonstration, the
engineer kind of pushed it and caused it to stop and back up. Guide dogs
can do certain things like that for their owners.
DK: That would be very interesting.
CC: Lets talk about the Segway. What happens when
you go over a curb with the Segway?
DK: If you go down a curb, nothing. If you were going up
a curb and you didnt see the obstacle, it would tip forward and
sort of pop up. You wouldnt want to do it. It is not made to do
that. You would never want a person with a disability to use it and assume
that if they hit a curb they would just go up it. Clearly this device
is not made to go up and down curbs.
LG: Do you need any special permission to take the Segway
into public places like a hotel?
DK: Yes. Well, theoretically we do until we get legal status as a pedestrian
which were working on very diligently. There are 18 states that
have already given it to us. Which is a big deal.
LG: So, you could take it into parks?
DK: Oh yeah. Cars are legal, but if you drove it onto your neighbors
lawn and left the radio blaring at 2 in the morning, you are still a nuisance
and can get in trouble. So, I think if you went screaming around the lobby
of a hotel on the Segway and you run into widows and orphans, you are
gonna be in trouble. If we get the legal right to be a pedestrian, well
be giving a lot of access to a lot of people.
CC: So, you need to do this with all fifty states.
DK: Yeah and were a little company. And thats hard to do.
Weve been having good luck. Weve had remarkable success. You
tell people the truth. A lot of people are cynical. A lot of people are
skeptical. But, you walk in and say, This is what I got. This is
what I think it can do. This is why I think its a good idea. If
there is something Im missing tell me. If not, help. And people
help! They do. Its a good thing.
CC: Im sure you are seeing applications of this internationally.
DK: More so than the U.S. I think the rest of the world, like in Europe,
is more congested. Fuel costs more money. People are more used to having
walkable cities. Theyve lost them more recently. So, they are ready.
In the developing world, in Asia, people cant afford cars. For lots
of reasons, the rest of the world is potentially a larger and more receptive
CC: At this point, what is the life of the charge in the Segway?
DK: We have two different kinds of batteries, nickel and nickel metal
hydride. The nickel metal hydride (which is the more expensive, longer
range system) can go between 10 and 15 miles on a charge. You plug it
in for an hour or two and youre off again.
CC: And the speed?
DK: 8 miles an hour continuous. And it will accelerate up to 10 or 12
miles per hour.
CC: I heard about a turbo model? Do you have something like that?
DK: Not that I know of. (laughs) I dont think so. But we saw something
in the paper that said 23 miles an hour, we saw one last week that said
40 miles an hour.
CC: Okay, were going to say 60. (laughs)
DK: (laughs) Go right ahead, as long as you dont quote me.
LG: What about downhill?
DK: Down the steepest hill or up the steepest hill it has exactly the
same speed because its all controlled. The top speed is the same
going uphill and downhill.
CC: When you are trying to get approval for the pedestrian status from
the states, do you become a lobbiest?
DK: I would say it is lobbying...although when I first heard
about it I thought lobbying was some kind of insidious backroom thing.
But, lobbying just means that you go and ask for support. I have personally
taken it to legislators and regulators. As I said, we have had much encouragement.
People ask some tough questions, but the are realistic. We were asked
questions like, What if the power goes out? Once I was asked,
What if you are going full speed and run into somebody? My
answer was, You might get hurt and they might get hurt, but unlike
a car or bus or train, you are as likely to get hurt as the person you
are hitting. So, you are going to pay attention. What happens when
you are running down the sidewalk and you run into a little kid? One of
you is going to get hurt. Im not here to tell you that you cant
abuse technology. Im not telling you that this thing replaces your
judgement. It replaces your inner ear. The rest of brain is still up to
you. If somebody in a wheelchair ran into somebody, they are going to
get hurt. Downhill in a wheelchair is fast. But, you cant go any
faster going down Lombard Street [a steep street in San Francisco] in
this thing than you can in a lobby. You cant do it.
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